The story on the Volt keeps shifting. Right now the discussion centers on whether the Volt is a hybrid, an EV or something different. Or, more broadly, does any of this even matter?
To me there are more interesting lessons to be drawn from all of this. To illustrate, consider this timeline that is based on what I have learned over the past few days.
Since its announcement, GM execs have gone out of their way to “sell” the Volt as something other than a hybrid, even going so far as to visit our office to tell us: You guys need to really understand the Volt is not a hybrid. It is an EV with a gas engine that charges the batteries. The gas engine does not power the wheels (and other riffs on this theme.)
This distinction has become important because GM made it important.
What I learned yesterday (unofficially) is that late in the development of the Volt, something changed. The engineers found that using a clutch--which was potentially there anyway from GM’s two-mode hybrid system--was an add that could increase efficiency at high speeds and/or high loads, like when the driver is climbing a mountain grade while towing, etc.
Sounds like a great add to me.
But here is where things go off the rails. Someone at GM must have realized that this spec change was enough to raise questions about the original the-Volt-is-not-a-hybrid story. But perhaps this issue was never discussed. Who knows?
Fast forward to last Sunday where the technical specs for the Volt were being revealed for the first time. Now, what I would have done if I were GM would have been to schedule an off-the-record briefing—embargoed until Sunday—for key media. The messages could have been “Hey guys, we are releasing technical details for the Volt on Sunday and we wanted to brief you on a design changed that occurred late in the process. It is a change that by any measure enhances the Volt, but we realize it may not jibe with earlier statement about the Volt’s powertrain. We couldn’t bring you in the loop earlier because we needed to protect our competitive advantage.” Then, have an engineer ready to tell the story and answer questions.
That would have been it. No controversy, and the focus would be on the Volt itself.
Instead, what happened is that rumors started back in June based on an announcement in Europe. When questioned directly, GM persisted in saying the Volt gas engine did not power the wheels (when a simple “I can’t comment on details of the Volt’s power train at this time" would have sufficed.)
Saturday night, Motor Trend broke the new story based on what looks like materials leaked by GM. That set everyone scrambling. Even now, GM's official response doesn’t explain how this happened, preferring to suggest that it didn’t really happen at all.
This has been called "Volt-gate" and perhaps the comparison is apt. History has shown repeatedly that the original problem is not usually the real problem. The real problem comes if the communication of the original problem is mishandled.
So, point #1 is this is a good example of how not to manage PR in this era of 24/7 media demanding transparency.
Speaking of media, let’s get to point #2. This is media’s perspective.
Even in the age of the Internet, legitimate media have responsibilities: To get the story right, for one. And to be skeptical—to not accept what we are told at face value; to verify with multiple sources whenever possible.
For reporters covering the auto industry a major source are the car companies themselves. Because of familiarity this exchange of information is informal, but there are rules of engagement (off the record or the record, background only, etc.)
One of the most important is trust. Media (usually) enjoy the trust of their audience, and media, in turn, trust their sources. Frankly, when a source is trusted, there is tad less required skepticism than otherwise. So trust is a big deal.
GM feels that our coverage of this Volt issue was overdone; that we are bashing GM. But what we were really bashing is the way this was handled. Changing the story is fine, but don’t leave the media you relied on to get the old story told hanging when the story changes.
Chances are they will feel duped and respond.
Incidentally, this is not just my view. Another story that does a nice job of explaining this is on AOL. You can read it here.
(UPDATE 10/14/10: MediaPost is reporting that GM denys any changes to the Volt. You can read this post here.)